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Film Review: The Endless (2017)

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SYNOPSIS:

Two brothers return to the cult they fled from years ago to discover that the group’s beliefs may be more sane than they once thought.

REVIEW:

It seems that commenting on film is almost as contentious these days as expressing a firm political opinion. One group will step out to claim a film to be “inventive”, “original”, and/or “intelligent”. They craft their argument in such a way that anyone who sees something less than the Second Coming of Cinema is a savage who shouldn’t watch movies. Of course, on the flip side, you have people who will happily tell you that anyone in the group mentioned previously are deranged and are buying into blatant manipulation by the studio/director/PR staff.

The people taking the two sides will shift from film to film. In one instance, you have the average person raving about a movie, which usually means higher scores on imdb.com and decent box-office results. The next, you’ll have the supposed fans of high cinematic art discovering some darling that they promote as an example of true art which means gushing reviews and low box-office takes.  Rarely do the two meld together. At least not these days.

This brings us to “The Endless”. Sure enough, if you check the reviews on imdb.com, it is mostly either “mind-bending” or “dreadful…simply dreadful”. Not much middle ground. Do I intend to be the voice of balance? Do I plan to unite the two polar opposites here? No. Heavens, no. I just don’t want to be called a “shill for the studio”, “an unintelligent Philistine”, or “a fanboy from Hell” depending on where my comments fall. Being slaughtered in the arena of social media is not something to which I aspire.

At the core of the story, we have two brothers who are at odds, much like the audience. Roughly ten years earlier, they had escaped what the media labelled a suicide cult. They were being taken care of there after their parents died in an accident. Eventually, Justin, the older of the brothers, led his younger brother away from the commune, and they have been muddling by ever since. Aaron seems listless to the point of acting practically autistic, and Justin is constantly worried about his brother’s state of mind and making ends meet.

One day, a package arrives. Packed within wads of newspaper that appear to be from the 50s is a severely worn and beaten 8mm video tape. The tape contains a message that looks like it was shot in the late 80s, and it shows the commune in the background as one of its members talks about the group being back soon and “The Ascension” that is coming soon. The message is followed by a very unusual shot of a fountain with bits of clothing strewn around the structure.

Aaron wants to return to the cult, just to visit, to make sure leaving was the best option. Justin, who wants ANYTHING to shake Aaron out of his listlessness, agrees, though he seems both terrified and ashamed to return.

That description is the story of “The Endless”. Two brothers attempting to sort out their lives, their pasts, and their endless loops of failure at life as well as relating to each other. Not the most compelling idea, unless you want some critically-praised indie film.

Yet Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the people behind directing, writing, producing, acting, as well as doing most everything else, in “The Endless”, take this simple idea and wrap it in tale that weaves through mythology, Lovecraft, science fiction, and a healthy dose of weirdness that might echo the brothers’ relationship. Or it could neat brain candy to keep you distracted from realizing you are watching a film about family dynamics.

The film begins jacking with your head before the brothers reach the commune, but once the film settles into its primary woodland setting, you are dropped into a world that is insane. I don’t want to give up too much as far as details here, though you can find plenty of reviews that talk openly about what the brothers ultimately face. Keep in mind that I choose to avoid details because I do not want to directly affect your personal take on the background story. There are no big twists like “The Crying Game” or “The Sixth Sense” to ruin. It is more the pervasive nature of what is happening in the forest and how it alters the brothers and their remembered experiences from 10 years earlier.

What Benson and Moorhead are doing with the background story is interesting. In fact, it almost overshadows the story of the brothers. If “The Endless” was a simple one-shot film, then you could just write it off as poor balance. However, their earlier film “Resolution” (2012) is set in the very same forest and even features two characters who make a brief appearance in “The Endless”. Maybe they are building an alternate cinematic universe in which to place their stories. Kind of like writing a family drama that takes place in a world where superheroes exist: we would recognize the familiar structure, but the expected tropes would yield up some fresh results.

Personally, I find “The Endless” to be a rather intriguing film with the potential to help build a franchise that can morph itself into many genres while still tackling the politics of being human. Is it perfect? No. I can even understand, to a point, some of the negative comments made about the film. It does move slowly and there aren’t many “action” elements that are pervasive in most major releases. The film takes its time to invest you in the characters before unveiling the very odd world in which they exist.

Will you like “The Endless”? I have no idea, but I would recommend giving it a try if anything about it interests you. If nothing else, consider it lending support to filmmakers who are attempting something different in an age of the endless cash grab known as mainstream cinema.

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